Tolkien the Anarchist

It is easy to confuse anarchism with nihilism.

The nihilist cares for nothing but destruction itself.  He derives strength ironically (and illogically) from the “meaning” of no meaning at all.  Owlman makes this perfectly clear, giving perhaps the clearest nihilistic statement in modern times.

The anarchist has a different approach.  His desire to destroy comes with reasonably good motives and a limited scope.  He really seeks not to destroy and create  better way of life.  One senses this in the music of Rage Against the Machine.  They have passion and plenty of excessive, destructive anger, but they plead for something real.  G.K. Chesteron’s brilliant The Man Who was Thursday touches on this as well, with the character of Sunday (slight spoiler alert) serving as the chief destroyer and chief unifier of the characters in the tale.

So it should not scare us too badly that a professor from Yale comes out in favor of anarchism.

James C. Scott’s book Two Cheers for Anarchism has a bark worse than its bite.  He believes that the state has some function to play, though never quite describes how.  He reveals himself as a strong critic of the industrial capitalistic modern world, much like Ivan Illich.  His critiques hit on something amiss about our predicament.  I wish he said more about about solutions.  In fairness, the road out of our situation is long and narrow.

How might one sympathize with a self-described anarchist?  We must first gain historical perspective and realize that the modern world looks very different from almost every other historical era.  The ordering of our lives occasioned especially by the industrial revolution make our lives much more regimented not by nature, but by our own creations, than any other time.

To work against this Scott urges us to abandon all centralized and regimented government solutions.  A simple example illustrates his point.  The Dutch tried an experiment with a notoriously dangerous and congested intersection.  They could have spent tens of millions and took several months to make an overpass.  The more obvious solution called for breaking up the intersection with more traffic lights and more centralized control.

Instead they opted for a traffic circle, with glorious results.  Accidents sharply declined and so did congestion. Traffic circles call for drivers to pay attention and make judgments, but Scott argues this is precisely why they work.  Governments need to get in the habit of giving over more initiative to the people and divesting themselves of institutional means of control, even with something as simple as traffic lights.  Plenty of other examples illustrate the same point, including

  • The superiority of the ‘randomness’ of nature to regimented/”scientific” planting of trees and gardens
  • The failures of housing projects vs. the concept of “neighborhoods.”
  • The unseen bonuses of shopping in neighborhoods as opposed to the ‘big box’ stores,

and so on.  His basic argument comes down to the concept of “small is beautiful.”

But he goes beyond this.  The “anarchist” part of the book involves his encouragement to small-scale kinds of disobedience to perverse means of establishing control.  He cites the recent example of French cab drivers suddenly finding themselves targeted for offenses of a particular traffic law.  They smelled not safety but money-making for the state as the motive.  So they banded together and decided that they would rigidly obey all the various traffic regulations.  Of course, traffic ground to a halt throughout French cities, the point being that

  • The practice of the people truly define what the law is, such as with speed limits, and
  • The state has stuffed the people full of useless and menacing regulations.  To enforce them all is impossible, to enforce most others would be arbitrary.

Scott laments when the natural actions and interests of the common man get co-opted by organizations.  Whatever their initial intentions, the imposed structure of unions, protest organizations, and the like, can never match the organic actions of the common man.  He admits that at times that state plays a useful function in giving an imprimatur, or proper force behind collective action, such as in the Civil Rights Movement.  But in general, a step towards centralization moves one closer to lifeless banality.

I also give Scott a lot of credit for recognizing that large-scale revolutionary action will make things worse.*  Every modern revolution created a more oppressive state than what it replaced:

  • After the American Revolution, British loyalists got a far worse treatment than any revolutionary against George III ever did before 1775.
  • The French Revolution made things far worse than the worst of the old regime
  • The Bolshevik revolution made Russia far worse than under the czars
  • Mao
  • Etc., etc.

We fix things, then in the steady and simple way of rejecting top-down government centralization, and looking for small ways in everyday life to assert the independence of organic communities and organic action.

So far so good, but while I realize the book merely wants to serve as an introduction, one issue in particular bothered me.

Scott states that, essentially, no possibility of a just society even existed until the political invention of modern democracy.  Ok . . . but . . . all of the worst examples of modern totalitarianism occurred in the name of the people.  It seems like democracy can, like nuclear power, give tremendous benefits but also cause tremendous damage.  Scott admits this from a structural standpoint, i.e., universal citizenship gives way to universal conscription, but misses something on the political side.

Scott also attaches himself too strongly to democracy itself, with the English Civil War as a case in point.  One can make a reasonable case that Charles I abused his power.  I think it much harder to justify his execution, done in the name of the law, in the name of the people, after a trial of dubious legality.  I know of no historian who argues that the Protectorate under Cromwell gave people more freedoms than Charles I.  In time, England begged Charles’ son to come back and rule as Charles II, and he returned to huge acclaim.  Again, it seems that the “Restoration” era under Charles II provided more tolerance and more room for localism than Cromwell and his more democratically minded Puritans.

The vision Scott argues for reminded me of G.K. Chesterton and Hillaire Belloc with “distributism.”  Scott decisively breaks with left-leaning academics who despise the “petty bourgeoise,” and instead looks for just the sort of limited land-ownership and localism that this class provides.  But the closest parallel to this kind of organization has historically only come from

  • Frontier societies, whose time may be sweet but is inevitably limited, as it waits for the rest of society to catch up
  • Societies on geographical fringes, like the eskimos, aborigines, jungle tribes, desert nomads, etc.
  • The Middle Ages

Maybe modern democracy is the cause, not the solution to the problems Scott decries.  Marx himself, I believe, believed that capitalism served the purpose of destroying local traditions, a necessary step towards worldwide revolution.  Maybe we need not blame democracy for all of the problems of the industrialized state.  But at the very least, sometimes non-democratic governments do a better job of preserving localism and traditions.

I wish Scott had tackled this.

Scott also may need to choose.  Does he prefer organic localism, or individual rights, democracy, etc.  The two do not always mix, so which does he prefer?  As an anarchist Scott blames the system.  But with democracies people generally get to create the system they want. If a democracy goes bad, then, blame the people, and not the system.  We get what we deserve.

Scott will strike many as decidedly modern, but if you poke around writers and thinkers with a bent towards bygone eras we get some surprises.  The great J.R.R. Tolkien railed against the modern world with his life and work to no avail.   Yet in a letter to his son he wrote,

My political opinions lean more and more to Anarchy (philosophically understood, meaning the abolition of control not whiskered men with bombs)—or to ‘unconstitutional’ Monarchy. I would arrest anybody who uses the word State (in any sense other than the inanimate real of England and its inhabitants, a thing that has neither power, rights nor mind); and after a chance of recantation, execute them if they remained obstinate! If we could go back to personal names, it would do a lot of good. Government is an abstract noun meaning the art and process of governing and it should be an offence to write it with a capital G or so to refer to people . . . .

He continued on the nature of ruling that,

Not one in a million is fit for it, and least of all those who seek the opportunity. At least it is done only to a small group of men who know who their master is. The mediaevals were only too right in taking nolo episcopari as the best reason a man could give to others for making him a bishop. Grant me a king whose chief interest in life is stamps, railways, or race-horses; and who has the power to sack his Vizier (or whatever you dare call him) if he does not like the cut of his trousers. And so on down the line. But, of course, the fatal weakness of all that—after all only the fatal weakness of all good natural things in a bad corrupt unnatural world—is that it works and has only worked when all the world is messing along in the same good old inefficient human way . . . .

David Bentley Hart quotes from this letter in a recent article in First Things, and Hart himself seems to get the gist of Tolkien’s meaning when he writes,

The ideal king would be rather like the king in chess: the most useless piece on the board, which occupies its square simply to prevent any other piece from doing so, but which is somehow still the whole game. There is something positively sacramental about its strategic impotence. And there is something blessedly gallant about giving one’s wholehearted allegiance to some poor inbred ditherer whose chief passions are Dresden china and the history of fly-fishing, but who nonetheless, quite ex opere operato, is also the bearer of the dignity of the nation, the anointed embodiment of the genius gentis—a kind of totem or, better, mascot.

Scott has done a great service with his book.  If he writes again I would love for his critique of modernism to go a bit a deeper.  Lets see what he can write if he broadens his vision.


*He never gets into why this is, however, and the question is worth pondering.  Why do popular revolutions create more totalitarianism than the governments they replace?